Desperation in Damascus, panic in Tehran

The more desperate the situation in Damascus, the more Tehran panics, distancing itself further away

As things turn sour for Assad and Damascus, Tehran is moving away
Ali Alfoneh
On 23 August 2012 15:50

Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, visiting Moscow yesterday, for the first time expressed the Syrian regime’s readiness to discuss resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. In his exact words: “As far as his resignation goes – making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” but added: “Any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”

Bashar’s readiness to leave his posts was also stressed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in an interview with Al-Watan, but the Russian Foreign Ministry has since denied that Bogdanov gave such an interview.

Despite the Russian denial, the Syrian deputy prime minister’s statement reflects Damascus’ attempt to use negotiations in order to buy time, to split the armed opposition groups, to show the world that the opposition does not want a negotiated solution to the crisis in Syria, or a combination of the above. The regime however, is running a huge risk: The opposition is bound to interpret the regime’s willingness to sacrifice Bashar in a desperate attempt to secure its survival and as a sign of weakness. The regime gesture is therefore also bound to harden the armed opposition’s resolve to overthrow the Assad rule.  

Desperation in Damascus has in turn led to panic in Tehran. The Islamic Republic and Syria were both odd men out in Middle Eastern politics, a fact which has, since the 1979 revolution in Iran, united them against shared enemies and rivals.

For a long time, the state controlled media in Iran reported all quiet on the Syrian front. Skirmishes in Syria were nothing but a few terrorist incidents organized by “reactionary Arabs,” a reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to Iranian media reports, and it was concluded that the Syrian regime was fully capable of suppressing such incidents. Facing mounting popular resistance to his rule, Bashar ordered a new constitution drafted, which the Iranian press dutifully praised. Syria was after all a “democracy”!

As cruelties of the Assad regime against the civilian population became apparent, Iranian state television began romanticizing the bonds between Iran and Syria under the Assad clan’s rule. Particular attention was paid to Damascus’ support to Iran during the eight years long war with Iraq, and development of Iran’s missile program with Syrian assistance. Recently, the Iranian press even released a doctored family photo of the Assad family in which Bashar’s mother wore Hijab.  

But as the situation in Syria is developing from bad to worse, the Islamic Republic is changing its tactics. Iranian state television openly ridiculed Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi’s statement that “the situation in Syria is calming,” and in an attempt to distance itself from the Syrian regime, the Iranian press, which previously praised the Syrian democracy, increasingly depicts Bashar’s rule as “authoritarian.”

The Islamic Republic also knows its scare tactics. The regime, which itself has armed Shi’a and Sunni radicals and terrorists all over the Middle East for the past three decades, is now warning the world of the rise of Sunni radicals in the case of regime collapse in Syria: Morteza Nematzadeh, former cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Damascus, has warned the West against the rise of the “giant of Salafism” in Syria should the Ba’th regime collapse; Asr-e Iran analyst Ali Qaderi has warned Turkey against arming the Syrian rebels with Stinger missiles which could fall into the hands of the Islamist radicals; and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei said the developments in Syria have reached their “final phase.”

Today, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi expressed Iran’s readiness to live up to its defense and security treaty obligations with Syria upon the request of the Syrian government. This is one of those empty threats which one can hardly take serious. As Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, deputy of the Quds [Jerusalem] Force of the Revolutionary Guards on May 26th, 2012 admitted, Iran already has a military presence in Syria.

The Free Syrian Army’s abduction of 48 Iranian military personnel proves not only Iran’s military presence, but also their inefficacy in Syria’s civil war. Desperation in Damascus has led to panic in Tehran.

Ali Alfoneh is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Alfoneh

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